Thursday, May 28, 2020

Stars of name-dropping 'High Note' have a few moments, just not enough

A musically inclined movie called "The High Note" ends in a way to make its title proud. If only getting there was half as much fun and not such a jumblin', stumblin' concept the director has offered up before.

Ellis Ross flashes some serious star power as multiplatinum singer Grace Davis.
That helmer is Nisha Ganatra, whose previous feature behind the camera was last year's "Late Night," in which Emma Thompson starred as an aging TV-host eventually warming up to an industry up-and-comer (played by screenwriter Mindy Kaling). In "The High Note," Tracee Ellis Ross portrays a nearing-50 singer slowly finding out that her personal assistant (Dakota Johnson) believes she could make some beautiful noise herself.

First-timer Flora Greeson wrote the screenplay, but Ganatra likely contributed to shaping the ever-changing relationship between fun-loving diva Grace Davis (Ellis Ross), not nearly as intimidating as the movie's promotional campaign might suggest, with the overly confident young Maggie (Johnson). Both stars shine mostly bright, with the former truly glowing in some credible comic moments and the latter talking softly but nicely carrying her savvy recording-studio shtick.

Along the way, if somebody might be reminded that Ellis Ross herself is the daughter of diva/superstar Diana Ross, well. so be it. The script certainly helps in that department since the fictional Grace's most recent chart-topping single -- a full 11 years ago -- is a ditty called "All the Way Up," while former Supremes super-group leader Ross' last solo No. 1 record went "Upside Down" (in 1980). The closing "Love Myself" finally gives Ellis Ross the best opportunity to show off her own vocal chops, too, in what is being called "the first single from the film" after teaming with producer Rodney Jenkins.

Harrison Jr., Johnson reach for more than studio high notes.
Uh, back to the story and speaking of producing, the self-possessed Maggie not only finds time for discreetly assembling a remix of Grace's greatest hits, but also to fine-tune the career of a talented if insecure crooner/love interest (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). That association significantly allows Greeson's script, which already had been peppering conversations with an unthinkable assortment of celebrity names, to drop a couple dozen or so more.

Alas, none of the personalities really show up on screen but, if anyone's counting, Stevie Nicks and Michael B. Jordan each earn more than one mention for plot-particular reasons. And, for pleasantly vocal ones, so does the late and legendary Sam Cooke.

Of course, N.W.A. rapper-turned actor Ice Cube actually co-stars, likely the result of more gimmicky than convincing casting as Grace's agent/manager/friend. Ex-comic Eddie Izzard adds a smaller, finer turn as a grizzled rock star aiding the ambitious Maggie in a ridiculously over-reaching scheme that leads to nothing good, except maybe a key role for Bill Pullman.

The ever-relaxed actor rushes in late to help answer a few pertinent questions that anyone with a brain just had to be asking before our previously recognized "High Note" finish. Some might even find it all happily plausible.

Rated "PG-13": strong language and suggestive situations; 1:53: $ $ and 1/2

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